I’ve nothing whatsoever against Luton Town, and in fact had a certain fondness for them as my early years of watching football coincided with the end of their period as a top-flight club. Though they often owed a slice of their continuing survival to the home advantage of a horrendous artificial surface, the Hatters’ ability to upset the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool on their own patch meant they were decent value for their place at the top table of English football.
After ripping up the astroturf, Luton were relegated in the last season of the old Barclays Division One in 1992. For the best part of two decades subsequently, their existence was one of a gradual decline briefly halted by the arrival of the occasional clutch of quality players through their academy, along with a manager capable of galvanising them. However the relative success of Mike Newell’s side that included Curtis Davies, Leon Barnett, Kevin Nicholls and others in the middle period of the last decade turned out to be a false dawn.
On and off-field turmoil saw a rapid slide down the divisions before administration and a wholly excessive 30 point penalty rendered their 2008-09 campaign something of a lost cause. An 89-year stay in the Football League was brought to an end, but the Hatters, under the guidance of new chairman Nick Owen, fought back and have been competing at the right end of the Conference National in the two seasons they have spent there. I expect that it is really a question of when and not if they will regain their league status, and sincerely hope that this analysis is proved correct. Nobody is ever ‘too good to go down’ but seeing Luton Town’s name in the Conference table online or in a newspaper does not feel quite right.
However, Saturday belonged to AFC Wimbledon, and like most I badly wanted them to win their playoff with Luton and thereby earn promotion to League Two. When games like this do not have the benefit of an early goal, they can often become tight, nervous affairs with the dynamics of the game driven largely by fear of failure. So it proved, as goal chances were at a premium and what opportunities did present themselves were spurned. Settling the small matter of Football League status on a penalty shootout is indeed a cruel way to end the hard slog of the previous nine months. However, Dons’ goalkeeper Seb Brown took his chance to become a hero, and his two saves, along with Danny Kedwell’s emphatic strike under pressure, saw the club seal a fifth promotion in only nine years of existence.
Seeing Wimbledon’s return to the fully professional ranks must give all involved with the club a sense of closure, that a historical wrong has been put right. Much of the goodwill towards the Dons ever since their formation in 2002 is based on a widely held view amongst football fans generally that the old Wimbledon club were the victims of something brutal and horrific, an affront to the ethos of sport that should never have been allowed to happen. Nobody currently involved at Kingsmeadow would wish to be seen by others or see themselves as a victim – that simply is not the Wimbledon way. But it’s worth going through some of the on and off-field story of the old club, if for no other reason than to give credit where it is due to people I feel did not receive it at the time.
The rise of Wimbledon FC from biggish non-league players to gatecrashers of the First Division starts with a heroic run to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in 1975. After shocking top-flight Burnley with a 0-1 victory at Turf Moor, goalkeeper Dickie Guy saved a Peter Lorimer penalty to earn a scoreless draw away to the might of Leeds United. The replay was narrowly lost, but the momentum of that run continued. Despite winning the Southern League in 1975 and 1976, the old re-election system conspired to slam the Football League door in their faces.
Eventually, after a third title in 1977, Workington Town, who had finished in the bottom two places in each of the last three years, were voted out, and the Dons had the opportunity that their efforts had thoroughly merited at least one year earlier. The sense that the club did not necessarily get a fair crack from the football authorities would of course punctuate chapters of their later existence.
The Dons’ rise up the Leagues was not as meteoric as urban myth may have led some to believe. Wimbledon were in fact relegated twice from the Third Division to the Fourth as they spent the years 1978 through 1982 oscillating between them. However, back-to-back promotions saw them reach the second tier in 1984, and within two further years they had achieved the unthinkable. Lawrie Sanchez’ goal at Huddersfield on the final day of the 1985-86 season clinched a place at the elite level for the first time in their history.
These of course were times when money did not drive the world of football to anything like the extent it does now. Despite regularly attracting crowds of less than 10,000 to their barely-touched Plough Lane ground, Wimbledon punched above their weight in the top flight, finishing sixth in their first season. A particular highlight was scoring home and away victories over Manchester United, with the winning goal at Plough Lane coming from a former hod carrier making his debut for the club.
Vinnie Jones would in many ways typify the spirit that made up for any technical failings by which the side were otherwise handicapped. He undeniably had limited natural talent as a footballer, but was a born leader, possessed the heart of a warrior, immense physical strength, and a willingness to go to war for team-mates that made him a ‘must have’ member of the dressing room. Jones was sent off a total of 12 times in his career, often for over-aggressive and dangerous tackling, and he was the target of more than one call to ban him from football for life. Nor did he help his own cause when he released the crude, unfortunate and rather useless ‘Soccer’s Hard Men’ video in 1992.
However, he and tall, aggressive striker John Fashanu (known as Fash the Bash) became the spine of a team that posed a different kind of examination to their opponents than anything else they would face. Wimbledon played a direct brand of football, aiming frequently for the head of Fashanu and looking to create opportunities from the second ball. They closed down their opponents like a pack of bloodhounds, both defended and attacked set plays expertly, were as physically fit and strong as anyone and possessed a spirit that led the whole to be significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
Practical jokes became the norm as new signings were subjected to an ‘initiation ceremony’ that might involve the loss of certain items of clothing. It was in part this sense of collective that led to the coining of the phrase ‘the Crazy Gang’ to describe the club.
1988 brought Wimbledon FC its finest hour, as reigning League champions Liverpool were defeated 1-0 in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Two moments of course shaped and defined the game’s legacy as well as its outcome. Sanchez’ header from a trademark Dons’ set piece and goalkeeper Dave Beasant’s save from John Aldridge’s penalty – the first time a glove-man had achieved this in what was back then the domestic calendar’s showpiece event. John Motson commented after the game that “the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club”. From that day on, the name stuck as a nationwide phenomenon.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the time they spent at the top level was the misfortune of winning the trophy while English clubs were banned from Europe. Watching Barcelona facing Vinnie, Fash et al at a cold and rain-swept Plough Lane would no doubt have been compulsive viewing. I’d have backed Wimbledon to win as well, certainly the home leg anyway.
The 1990s brought the Premier League, a move to all-seater stadia and thus necessitated that the club find a new ground while attempting to either rebuild Plough Lane or establish a new home in the borough of Merton. The first idea was eventually written off, while the second was met with varying degrees of co-operation from the localcouncil and enthusiasm from owner Sam Hammam, depending upon who you speak to. As it was, Wimbledon FC would play out the rest of their effective existence at Selhurst Park, home of CrystalPalace.
The club’s profile had also been raised by their prolonged stay in what was now the Premier League, and retaining their best players meant paying salaries that, while not reckless or irresponsible, could notbe sustained long-term by a club attracting 10-15,000 supporters in a rival’s ground. This meant that unearthing rough diamonds either through their own academy or from the lower divisions, then selling them to bigger fish at aÂ substantial profit became the most naturalway for Wimbledon to survive. Time and again their scouts and youth development team pulled a rabbit from the hat, with the likes of Warren Barton, John Scales, Terry Phelan and Carl Cort all moving for transfer fees that ran into the millions.
They remained a competitive force in domestic competition at the same time, rarely finding themselves in danger of relegation while reaching the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and League Cup in 1997. Under Joe Kinnear, their playing style evolved from the crude ‘kick and rush’ of the Dave Bassett/Bobby Gould era to a more mixed approach. In his second stint with the club, Jones was still a stalwart of the team, but players such as Robbie Earle, Oyvind Leonhardsen and Michael Hughes could really play and brought an additional technical dimension to the Dons’ game. The biggest compliment that one could have paid to the club around this time was that nobody expected to see them at the bottom of the Premier Division and the football-supporting public as a whole had got used to the notion that Wimbledon were a top flight club.
However, the issue of attendances (or lack of) continued. Crowds to watch Wimbledon at Selhurst peaked at an average of 18,235 in 1998. Though their days of habitually propping up this particular league table were over while Southampton remained at the Dell, much of this was the product of strong away support from more well supported clubs. One got the feeling that were the Dons ever to be relegated from the Premier League, they may be the sort of club who would struggle to return. After a proposed move to Dublin was rightly rejected by the FAI, Sam Hammam sold the club to a Norwegian consortium in 1997, feeling he had reached a dead end in terms of where he could take them. Another blow came when Kinnear suffered a heart attack and serious health issues in March 1999, and decided he needed time out of the game to recuperate.
Former Norway national manager Egil Olsen was appointed as his replacement and could not replicate the success he had experienced with his home country in the early part of the decade. Many of the players signed by Olsen were seen as inferior to those they were replacing, and a horrendous win-less run in the early months of 2000 dragged the Dons into real danger of relegation for the first time in many a year. While Bradford upset Liverpool at Valley Parade, Wimbledon capitulated in uncharacteristically meek fashion at Southampton, and their 14 season stay in the top flight was over.
Enter Peter Winkelman and project MK, which had been an attempt to bring professional football to the relatively new city of Milton Keynes since its formation. Charlton Athletic and Luton had already been approached many years earlier with regard to a US-style franchise move, but on both occasions supporter resistance had won out. However, failure to make an early return to the Premier League had left Wimbledon vulnerable – homeless, operating at heavy losses, not especially well supported and unlikely to move back to Merton any time soon. The Norwegians were hemorrhaging money by the bucket-load and needed a way out. Winkelman was about to present them with one.
The original proposal to move the club to Milton Keynes was met by opposition by Dons supporters, the Football Association and the Football League. However, the FA, having rightly asserted in the first instance that a club from Milton Keynes should progress through the pyramid like anyone else, backtracked on this in April 2002 and granted permission to the move of the club the following month. AFC Wimbledon, the club formed by fans disgusted by the cop-out from the authorities, were formed less than a fortnight later, and kicked off the following season in the Combined Counties League. Games at Selhurst Park featuring the old Wimbledon were eerie affairs in the interim, often played in front of less than 2,000 spectators.
Eventually the first match at the national hockey stadium in MK took place on 27th September 2003, as a team still referred to as Wimbledon came back from 0-2 behind to draw with Burnley. The name MK Dons was adopted the following season. While the outrage of Wimbledon supporters at the move was, in my view, wholly justified, it would be unfair to pin any of this on the people of Milton Keynes. Presented with a second tier football club on their doorstep, you cannot blame them for going to watch it in sizable numbers. However, given the way in which they have thrived and attracted support since, it begs the question as to why previous attempts to launch a football club in the city had floundered as they did.
What happened set a dangerous and unwanted precedent of moving sports ‘franchises’ from one town or city to another, and it is immensely difficult to see any reason why it was absolutely necessary. Winkelman of course pointed, and still points to the aim behind the creation of the city four decades earlier as a place that would grow and expand rapidly. One could argue that a successful football club, as a focal point of the local community and economy, is central to that aim. However, this goes against the grain of why competitive sport appeals to so many. There are not supposed to be any ‘helping hands’, and nobody ought to be parachuted into a higher echelon than their results have warranted. Sport is at least intended to be a level playing field, where the status of individuals or teams is earned solely on merit. Put simply, Winkelman is and always was wrong, and the MK Dons are known as ‘the franchise’ for a very clear reason.
Meanwhile, AFC Wimbledon, settling at the Kingsmeadow home of fellow non-league side Kingstonian, were busy moving their new club forward. After narrowly missing out on promotion in their first season, they rose rapidly through the leagues, often finding themselves cast uncharacteristically as the big sharks in the smaller ponds of the non-league pyramid. Under current manager Terry Brown, their progress has been staggering. Promoted from the Isthmian League in 2008, they won the Conference South at the first attempt the following season, and have taken only a further two years to achieve the football league status they craved from the outset.
Owned by their supporters and with a degree of democratic decision making not seen in many clubs, AFC Wimbledon have enjoyed healthy crowds averaging over 3,000 in the last two years. Outside England’s top four divisions, only Luton have attracted a bigger fan-base in the time-frame. The financial climate of football has changed so much that the prospect of a club of their size rising all the way to the Premier League borders on the unthinkable, but this is Wimbledon, and there is no reason why the real Dons cannot emulate the likes of Yeovil Town and reach the relative heights of League One.
Were they to achieve this, there would of course be a potential encounter with some old acquaintances from Milton Keynes. Opinion amongst fans of the real Dons is divided regarding such a prospect, with some looking forward to the day that the score is settled on the field of play, while another understandable view is that of refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of ‘the franchise’. What is almost certain is that the day is going to arrive eventually, but for now that will be of no immediate concern to those involved with AFC Wimbledon.
In nine years they have achieved what they set out to do, and in many ways this achievement matches (maybe even surpasses) those of Jones, Fash, Sanchez et al in the mid and late 1980s. There is always immense satisfaction that comes with being able to say the words “job done” with utter sincerity, and of having brought a happy ending to the story. Words like ‘fairytale’ are overly used in sport, but unlikely a Cinderella as either Seb Brown or Danny Kedwell may be, their efforts on Saturday might just qualify.